WINNIPEG — In the end, the final play of the final game of the final season of Canad Inns Stadium was a touchdown that helped send the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the Grey Cup.
History will record that Bombers running back Chris Garrett — who authored one of the great playoff performances in Bombers history on Sunday — rumbled three yards into the end zone just as time expired to ice, literally on this frigid day, a 19-3 Bombers victory in the East Division final and prolong by a week what’s already been a memorable 2011 season.
Pandemonium followed Garrett’s score as a jubilant Bombers football club poured out on to the frozen field one final time to celebrate. Bombers defensive tackle Doug Brown, playing his last game in Winnipeg after an 11-year career, was mobbed by teammates. Defensive back Brandon Stewart, who hurt his ankle in the first half, danced on one foot and waved his crutches in the air. A sell-out crowd of 30,051 — who endured -10 C temperatures and a biting wind — mostly remained in their seats, savouring the history of the moment.
There was no possibility — or any purpose — in even attempting the convert that should have followed Garrett’s score and the officiating crew on hand Sunday seemed content to allow the final play in the 58-year history of the Polo Park stadium go into the books as a major for the home team.
And with that, the Bombers will now travel to Vancouver this week where they will have to beat the home team — the B.C. Lions — in next Sunday’s 99th Grey Cup if they are to end a 21-year Grey Cup drought in Winnipeg. The Lions destroyed the Edmonton Eskimos 40-23 in Sunday’s West Final at B.C. Place to advance.
But that challenge is for the coming week. Yesterday afternoon, amidst all the triumph and cigars in the Bombers locker room, the talk was more of the long journey Winnipeg took to get to this point — coming off a 4-14 season in 2010 and, in particular, overcoming the sudden death in July of assistant head coach Richard Harris.
"We’re one step away," said Brown, "from paying Richard Harris the tribute he deserves."
Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice said he talked with his team on Saturday, for one of the few times since Harris passed away, about using Sunday’s historic game to honour their fallen coach.
"This is not an after-school special or a reality show," said LaPolice. "This really happened to us. We lost one of our close friends. So you don’t want to say it all the time, talk about it too much and overuse it.
"But we talked about him and trying to get to the Grey Cup and emulate some of the things he did...I hope we can finish off the Grey Cup for him."
The Bombers will have one major advantage in that quest — a ferocious defence that held a Hamilton team that scored 55 points against the Montreal Alouettes in the East semifinal to a measly first quarter field goal — and just 176 yards offence — yesterday.
Part of the credit for that must surely go to Bombers defensive coordinator Tim Burke, who has a rare opportunity to win his third consecutive Grey Cup this week after having won the last two as defensive coordinator for the Montreal Alouettes.
Burke put together a suffocating scheme that held Ticats running back Avon Cobourne — who romped against Montreal — to just 28 yards rushing and Ticats QBs Kevin Glenn and Quinton Porter to just 153 yards passing combined.
Cobourne had boasted on Saturday that the Ticats knew everything the Bombers were going to do on Sunday after Hamilton acquired receiver Terence Jeffers-Harris on Friday, who the Bombers had released on Thursday. But there was no evidence of any subterfuge and the Bombers even successfully engineered a gadget play on their first touchdown, a 3-yard pass from backup QB Alex Brink to defensive lineman Jason Vega.
"I guess Terence didn’t tell them about that one," laughed Vega.
And credit must also go to a Bombers offence on Sunday that wasn’t prolific on the scoreboard but was effective on the field as Winnipeg dominated the line of scrimmage and Garrett romped seemingly at will. "You couldn’t write a better script," said Garrett, who was cut by the Bombers earlier this season and was out of work for most of the summer.
At 190 yards, Garrett wasn’t far off the franchise playoff record for rushing yards of 227, put up by Michael Richardson in the 1992 East final.
Despite the Bombers dominance, Hamilton trailed by only 10 points at 13-3 and had the wind in the fourth quarter. But an Alex Suber interception followed by a fumble recovery, also by Suber, sealed the deal.
"We had the wind and we kind of weathered the storm. We had a great opportunity, I thought," said Ticats coach Marcel Bellefeuille.
Winnipeg QB Buck Pierce, as is his custom, put up modest numbers — 16-28, 175 yards and 1 INT — but authored big plays when he needed to and was at his most effective — and scariest, given his injury history — when he took off himself and bulled his way for extra yards.
"This is the playoffs man," Pierce said. "There’s no tomorrow. I’m going out to get every yard I can get. And I think it paid dividends tonight."
Pierce also got a bit lucky, fumbling twice in the first half but the Bombers recovered both times. Garrett also fumbled in the first half, but managed to knock the ball out of bounds.
With the victory, the Bombers are now 6-1 against the Ticats in East Division finals and have a 19-16 record all time in division finals.